February 28, 2003


How Civil-Libertarian Hysteria May Endanger Us All: Congress was stunningly irresponsible in hobbling a program aimed at catching terrorists. (Stuart Taylor Jr., February 25, 2003, The Atlantic Monthly)
Someday Americans may die because of Congress's decision earlier this month to cripple a Defense Department program designed to catch future Mohamed Attas before they strike. That's not a prediction. But it is a fear.

The program seeks to develop software to make intelligence-sharing more effective by making it instantaneous, the better to learn more about suspected terrorists and identify people who might be terrorists. It would link computerized government databases to one another and to some nongovernment databases to which investigators already have legal access. If feasible, it would also fish through billions of transactions for patterns of activities in which terrorists might engage. [...]

The problem with the near-ban on TIA—sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and known as the Wyden amendment—is that rather than weighing the hoped-for security benefits against the feared privacy costs, and devising ways to minimize those costs, Congress was stampeded by civil-libertarian hysteria into adopting severe and unwarranted restrictions. The Bush administration shares the blame because the person it put in charge of TIA research is Adm. John M. Poindexter, whose record of lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair does not inspire trust.

"There are risks to TIA, but in the end I think the risks of not trying TIA are greater, and we should at least try to construct systems for [minimizing] abuse before we discard all potential benefits from technological innovation," says Paul Rosenzweig, a legal analyst at the Heritage Foundation who has co-authored a thoughtful 25-page analysis of the TIA program, including a list of muscular safeguards that Congress could adopt to protect privacy and prevent abuses. Instead of weighing such factors, Rosenzweig says, Congress has "deliberately and without much thought decided to discard the greatest advantage we have over our foes—our technological superiority."

When the 9-11 attacks occurred and it became clear how closely the terrorists fit a seemingly obvious profile--national origin, immigrant status, flight training, health club memberships, purchase patterns, etc.--everyone beat their chest and demanded the heads of folks at the FBI and CIA who'd failed to pick up on these signs. Now the government comes up with a daring and innovative plan to just possibly--though, this being the government, one doubts it--notice such connections next time and people demand it be stopped lest one more computer somewhere know what many other corporate computers already know about them. That may be a rational choice, to trade societal safety for a bit of personal privacy, but it is the choice being made--a selfish preference being placed ahead of the very purpose for which government is constituted--and those who support doing so need to take responsibility for it, not look to scapegoat government when future attacks occur. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2003 8:20 AM

As a civil libertarian, I am appalled. There are plenty of legal recourses available in case TIA got abused.

The stampeding CLs were dead wrong on this one.



Posted by: at February 28, 2003 12:18 PM